Israel is a small country located along the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank. It has an area of 20,770 sq km. This equates to an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Israel has a relatively temperate climate, but temperatures become increasingly hot and dry as you move in to the Negev desert regions in the southern part of the country. Israel is mostly plains along the coast with mountain down the center.
Only 14% of Israel’s land is arable. The main source of fresh, drinkable water is the Sea of Galilee. The combination of little arable land and limited supply of fresh water is beginning to take its toll on the accessibility to resources.
Israel’s current environmental concerns are desertification, air pollution from vehicles, and industry and water pollution caused by industrial waste, chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
Israel is steeped in religious history dating back to when the Israelites first conquered the region in 1250 BCE and King Solomon reigned from 961 to 922 BCE. What followed was centuries of various empires competing for control until the rise of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 CE. In 1896, Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, published The Jewish State, a book that developed the framework for political Zionism. Herzl’s work led to the initial meeting of the Zionist Congress to establish a homeland in Palestine in response to high levels of anti-Antisemitism throughout Europe. By 1903, 25,000 Jews had immigrated to Palestine and lived alongside the 500,000 Arabs.
During World War I, the Ottomans joined the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Allied Powers (France, Britain, Russia, and the United States) supported Arab uprisings against the Ottoman Empire that would ultimately lead to its weakening and complete dissolution. Throughout and following the war, a series of private agreements resulted in the division of the area into sovereign states with mandate rulers.
In 1915, the High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, engaged in secret correspondence with Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Hejaz and Mecca. Sharif is a title meaning noble and referring to descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hassan Ibn Ali. McMahon expressed Great Britain’s eventual recognition and support of an Arab state whose boundaries would be determined by Hussein. These exchanges, now known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (or, alternately, as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence) lasted from July 14, 1915 to January 30, 1916. In exchange for Arab support of the war efforts through revolts against the Ottomans, the British would recognize Arab independence. This commitment was not honored.
Meanwhile, also in 1915, British parliamentarian, Sir Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, looking toward a collapsed Ottoman Empire, divided the region into hypothetical spheres of influence under either British or French control. The Sykes-Picot agreement, drafted in secret unbeknownst to other world leaders, would give the northern part of the Middle East, consisting of Christian enclaves in Syria and Lebanon to France, while Great Britain would have authority over southern territory including Palestine and Iraq.
In 1917, however, British Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour promised the Zionist Federation of Great Britain the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. The Balfour Declaration of a homeland for the Jewish diaspora in what was believed to be a preemptory concession to the United States’ President Woodrow Wilson who most certainly would have disagreed with the Sykes-Picot redesign of the Middle East.
Upon the conclusion of World War I, the people of greater Syria were unwilling to cede control to the French as outlined in the Sykes-Picot agreement. In April 1920, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan swiftly convened at the San Remo conference to discuss the allocation of mandates for administration of the former Ottoman-ruled lands of the Middle East. Precise state borders would be determined at a later date. Ultimately, as a result of the San Remo conference, the Middle East lands of present day Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were divided into different regions under control of France and the United Kingdom with some variations from the original Sykes-Picot Agreement. Some of the current borders in the Middle East stem from this arrangement between western powers.
History & Government Resources
Israel has an advanced free market economy. Its leading exports are cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and pharmaceuticals, whilst its main imports are crude oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment. Israel usually ends up with significant trade deficits; however, it is mostly counteracted by tourism and other service exports, as well as significant foreign investment inflows. Between 2004 and 2013, Israel’s growth averaged nearly 5% per year, although the figure has started to decrease over the last 3 years.
A significant challenge to the Israeli economy is its high income inequality and poverty rates. The inequality rates are among the highest of OECD countries, and there is a broad perception among the public that a small number of “tycoons” have a cartel-like grip over the major parts of the economy. Government officials have called for reforms to boost the housing supply and to increase competition in the banking sector to address these public grievances. Despite calls for reforms, the restricted housing supply continues to impact the well-being of younger Israelis seeking to purchase homes.
The CIA World Factbook estimates that the population as of February 2016 is 8,049,314. The population is 75% Jewish. Most of these are Israel-born, but significant numbers were born in Europe, the United States, and Africa. Many Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The remaining 25% of the population of Israel is of Arab descent. The Arab population is primarily concentrated in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The three largest cities are Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, which is where nearly three fourths of the population lives.
Israel receives huge amounts of immigrants, mainly due to its open citizenship laws. Israel’s citizenship laws are quite unique, giving citizenship to any Jew or person with a Jewish grandparent. This is specified in Israel’s Law of Return, passed in 1950. In addition to its inclusive citizenship requirements, Israel has been quite proactive in encouraging people to make Aliyah, a Hebrew term meaning “to ascend” which refers to the immigration of Jews in exile to Israel. After its formation, the country embarked on ambitious campaigns to bring members of the Jewish Diaspora home to Israel; over 49,000 Yemeni Jews, 120,000 Iraqi Jews, 30,000 Iranian Jews, and 15,000 Ethiopian Jews have been airlifted to Israel. This comes in addition to various other avenues for immigration to Israel, utilized mostly by Russian Jews, French Jews, and Ethiopians. What exactly constitutes a Jew has become a complex issue with the introduction of this law, as after the first wave of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, many Ethiopians asked to immigrate to Israel because of a historical claim to Judaism that was interrupted by a forceful conversion to Christianity. One objective of these policies is to increase the Jewish population relative to the area’s Arab population.
While Israel is quite accommodating in its immigration policy, many immigrants, particularly those from Africa, have struggled to integrate into Israeli society. There are a multitude of obstacles to integration, from language barriers to racism. According to a 2012 study, only 13% of Ethiopian high school students felt fully Israeli. Ethiopians and other African immigrants often face widespread discrimination and segregation in immigrant communities, perpetuating isolation and cycles of inter-generational poverty similar to these seen in inner-city immigrant communities in the U.S. The frustration of Ethiopians culminated in a violent protest in Haifa in 2015, after an Ethiopian IDF soldier was beaten badly by Israeli border police.
Today the highest number of immigrants to Israel comes from France. Mainly driven by increasing terror attacks, economic downturn, and rising Antisemitism, the number of French making Aliyah has increased tremendously from 2014 to 2016. Israel is eager to receive French immigrants because of their high levels of education. These immigrants are also unlikely to face the same type of discrimination that their African counterparts do, mainly due to similarities in European and Israeli cultures.
Population of Israel
98% of the population is literate. It is expected that each Israeli child will attend school for 15 years. There are both state-run and religious (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) schools. School is free up until age 15. There are a small number of integrated, bilingual schools in which peaceful coexistence is a core value. Upon graduation from high school, students must take the Israeli Matriculation Exam in order to proceed to higher education. They must pass tests in the areas of Hebrew, English, math, scriptures, state studies, history and literature. In addition, students must also pass the Psychometric Entrance Test, similar to the American SAT or ACT.
There is universal, mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces; however, there are religious, physical, and psychological exemptions and alternatives for those unable or unwilling to serve in the military. Israeli Arabs are not conscripted. Students must receive special permission to stay in school through a deferment process.
There are many universities and colleges that Israelis may attend. Some are more technical schools and some schools have a specialty (engineering, art, etc.) They are spread throughout the country in major metropolitan centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and beyond.
Israel is a Jewish state. 75% of the population is Jewish. Of that percentage, only about 5% consider themselves to be ultra-conservatives. There are several branches of Judaism that are all represented in Israel. It is the only country where Judaism is the majority religion. It is predicted that ¼ of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. Most of the remaining population is Sunni Muslim. There are also small groups of Christians, Greek Orthodox, and Druze. On an interesting note the Baha’i faith considers its religious center to be Haifa, Israel, but so few Baha’is live in Israel that it is not listed as a religion in Israel.
Israeli art is often synonymous with Jewish art. This style of art has evolved from manuscripts and textiles to include paintings and sculptures. Artists create works that are influenced by their history and their socio-religious experiences. Some of the art is also influenced by the other cultures that have lived in the area as well as artists’ countries of origin. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has founded several art schools and encourages artistic pursuits.
Street art is growing in prominence in Israel. These works can be massive, taking up entire sides of buildings. They are popping up primarily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These works are political in nature but the government of Israel has not tried to restrict or eliminate street art.
Literature & Film
Israeli literature is a recent, but rich phenomenon, springing up after the second wave of immigration to Israel. Most of the immigrants writing Israeli literature in the early 20th century were from Eastern Europe and thus most of the work was written in either Yiddish or Hebrew, and later in Arabic when Sephardic (Iberian Peninsula) and Mizrahi (Middle East) Jews began to immigrate to the country.
This first period of Israeli literature was quite similar to European literature at the time, due to the fact that its authors were very recent immigrants from Europe. One important writer of this period was Shmuel Yusuf Agnon. Agnon was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and immigrated to Israel when he was 36 years old. His work deals with the conflict between traditional Jewish life and the modern world, as well as European village life. He was quite famous in Israel pre and post-independence and eventually won a Nobel Prize in literature when he was 78.
The second period of Israeli literature was dominated by sabras, or male Israelis born in Israel. This period focused on Palestine, life in the Kibbutz (a Jewish collective community), and the process of Aliyah. A famous writer from this period was Uri Zi Greenberg. Greenberg was born in Austria-Hungary in 1896 and moved to Israel in 1939 in order to escape WWII. He was a poet and journalist, actively involved in the Israeli struggle for independence. His poetry focused on the pain of the modern era, and explored the notion of destiny for all of the Jewish people.
The third period of Israeli literature was placed right after Israel’s independence and attempted to establish a Jewish-Israeli identity and the values that came with it. A famous writer from this period was S. Yizhar. Yizhar was born in what is present-day Israel in 1916. His works feature stream of consciousness narratives, a type of narrative that is more fragmented and unstructured in an attempt to mimic human thought. This personal style of writing was heavily influenced by his own experiences and frequently drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of Israel’s natural landscape. One of his more famous books, Khirbet Khizeh, depicts the actions of Israeli soldiers when they expelled Arabs from their homes in 1948. This book was made a mandatory part of high school literature and later into an Israeli television show.
Movie theaters are common and there is a burgeoning film industry in Israel. In recent years, Israeli films have garnered international attention at festivals and independent theaters, gaining numerous awards. There is a film archive at Hebrew University that houses movies produced by Israelis as well as ones that deal with Israeli history and people. The dramatic arts are also growing in popularity, though theater is more of an Israeli tradition than a Jewish one.
Israeli music is a mixture of different types of religious Jewish music and regional music traditions reflective of the diverse background of Israelis. Historically, Hebrew songs have been used to reinforce identity and belonging. While creating a diverse musical base in Israel, musicians have also made contributions to the international genres of classical, jazz and pop. Vocals are performed in a multitude of languages – Hebrew, French, English, Amharic, Russian, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, and others, again reflecting the lingering influence of the population’s countries of origin. There are several famous orchestras in Israel; the most prominent are the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Israel Chamber Orchestra. The Jerusalem Symphonic Orchestra plays only for radio broadcast and attracts many listeners. Israeli musicians commonly use war and peace themes in their work as a result of the security situation around them. A-Wa, a trio of sisters of Yemeni heritage, has gained international attention for their traditional Yemeni Jewish folk singing. Ofra Haza was an Israeli artist whose appeal extended into the greater Middle East and who is now referred to as the “Madonna of the East”. Renowned violinist and conductor, Itzak Perlman, was born in Mandate Palestine in 1945.
Sites and Places of Interest
Israel and the adjoining Palestinian government-administered territories are host to innumerable holy sites revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Both Jews and Arabs visit these holy places; and the area also attracts large numbers of international pilgrims and tourists. Several museums have been created to house the artifacts originating from these sites. Museums are sponsored by the government, Jewish organizations and other private organizations based in the United States and Europe that want to protect Islamic and Jewish artifacts.
Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock is one of the oldest mosques and it is located in the Temple Mount. The rock at the center of the mosque is supposedly the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven.
This mosque is the 3rd holiest place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. The translation of the name means “farthest mosque”. It is also located at Temple Mount.
Western Wall (Wailing Wall)
This wall is the last remaining piece of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism; many Jews pray there everyday.
Hebron is the largest city in West Bank. It is the 2nd holiest site in Judaism and is important in Islamic tradition as well since it is thought to be the home of Abraham and his family. This site provides information on the history, religious significance and modern life in Hebron.
Museums in Israel
This website from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides a list and brief descriptions of several museums in Israel.
Archeology in Israel
This website from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides information on archeological sites and activity in Israel.
The Israel Museum
This is the official website of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Included is information on exhibitions, galleries, and programs.
Did you know John D. Rockefeller contributed 2 million dollars to help preserve archaeological treasures? The museum opened its doors in 1937.
Virtual Tour of Jerusalem
This website offers virtual tours/panoramic images of the city of Jerusalem and some of its important religious sites.
Sports are a popular pastime in Israel. Despite its diminutive size, Israel has sent several delegations to the Olympics. Israel has won seven Olympic medals: five bronze, one silver and one gold, mainly for judo and sailing.
Israel has its own Olympics, the Maccabiah Games, held once every four years. Jewish athletes from all over the world come to compete. The first Maccabiah was held in 1932. It is the third-largest sporting event in the world, with 9,000 athletes competing on behalf of 78 countries. The next competition will be held in July 2017.
Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport, followed by basketball. Israel’s highest FIFA ranking ever was 15th, in November 2008, but it has appeared in the World Cup Soccer finals only once, in 1970. In basketball, Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv dominate the domestic league and are among the top teams in Europe. Maccabi Tel Aviv has won the European championship six times and Hapoel once.*
Sports, like music and other diversions, has acted as a unifying force in which Jews and Arabs have overcome differences in pursuit of a common interest. Sports have also been an integral component of co-existence programs for Arab and Jewish children in Israel.
*Information in this paragraph found at 10 Facts About Israeli Sports